Building physical qualities in youth athletes is a simple process, but can be hindered by a number of factors. Things such as specializing in one sport too early, or drastically increasing the volume and intensity of their sport or training can put young athletes at risk for injury and burnout. For young athletes, the top priorities should always be centered around growth and enjoyment, but that doesn’t mean they can’t work on building a strong physical foundation simultaneously. Practicing healthy movement habits from a young age can set youth athletes up for success down the line.
Repetitive movements over time are one of the primary factors leading to overuse injuries. For youth athletes, playing multiple sports can be one way to mitigate this. Learning a wide variety of physical skills will not only decrease the risk of overuse injuries, but it will also help create a more well-rounded and adaptable athlete. Developing the coordination to activate a variety of muscle groups in different ranges of motions and at various speeds is a differentiating factor between athletes who compete at a high level and those who don’t. Most college and professional athletes played multiple sports throughout the majority of their childhood. In addition to playing sports, participating in other physically challenging activities like strength and speed training, dance, yoga, and more can contribute to an athlete's ability to move their body in new ways.
Building Movement Competency and Positive Habits
No athlete is the same and no athlete will look identical to another doing the same skill or movement. With this being said, there are certain movement parameters that an athlete should operate under to achieve efficient and safe movement. It’s impossible to label what every movement should look like for every athlete; this comes from having knowledgeable coaches with a well-trained eye. One athlete’s squat or sprint may look very different from others, but that doesn’t necessarily make it wrong. An athlete’s biomechanics, genetics, anthropometrics and sport experiences all contribute to how they move. The key is to look for patterns that might put that athlete at risk of injury or may cause them to be less efficient, and explore them. These are things that should be addressed to prohibit the athlete from creating poor habits long-term. If you can identify and re-train these areas from a young age, the future benefits will be exponential.
Consistently Expressing Power and Speed
As a coach of youth athletes, parents are frequently interested in what they can do to help their child become faster and more explosive. Until an athlete reaches a higher training age, the answer is quite simple. To be fast and explosive, an athlete needs to perform movements at high speed with high intent. If you want to sprint faster but you rarely sprint at top speed, there’s no way you will get faster. This can come through an athlete's sport, through doing some occasional but consistent speed work or something as simple as an intense game of tag. It doesn’t need to be complicated, and your child doesn’t need to train like they are entering the NFL combine. Once an athlete grows older and more advanced, more specific speed and power training can be implemented, but first, start simple.
Gaining Strength Through Large Ranges of Motion
Strength training for youth athletes should start with mastering simple movement patterns. If possible, athletes should try to move through full ranges of motion in their movements. It is much easier to master this at a young age as opposed to when an athlete is older and more developed. If an athlete struggles with range of motion, it may be a sign that they could benefit from mobility work, or activities like gymnastics that will challenge their flexibility and body awareness. For strength training, tempo work can be a great way to progress bodyweight movements before adding weight. This means adding a slow eccentric or isometric pause through movements. Once an athlete has become proficient enough to add weights, tempo work is still highly beneficial to incorporate occasionally. Eventually, an athlete will reach a training level where increasing load and volume in a more structured and periodized manner is the best route for them to continue to increase strength. This will generally come in the form of more formal strength training with a coach who has experience working with youth athletes.